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Working horses replace tractors for island preservation work

Three horses have been brought back into use on Ile aux Sternes, a nature reserve on three small islands in the Loire by Tom Pellerin, owner of Trait Service 45

Working horses have made a comeback, replacing tractors for bush-clearing in a pioneering trial at a nature reserve.

Heavy horses were consigned to history when mechanical options took over, but three were brought back into use on Ile aux Sternes, a nature reserve on three small islands in the Loire.

In an experiment to evaluate their future use, they were harnessed to clear the fast-growing poplar saplings that can grow up to two metres in two years, destroying nesting grounds for rare birds on the islands.

Vegetation also accumulates in the new growth and then gets released in clumps during periods of high water, threatening bridges.

Tom Pellerin, owner of Trait Service 45, which carried out the work at Beaugency, between Orléans and Blois, Loiret, north-central France, said: “Until now, clearing was done with a digger and tractors. A new road had to be built each time to get the tractors there, damaging the river bed."

'For some jobs it makes much more sense to use horses rather than machines'

“While the work was carried out, you heard the roar of diesel engines all day, and the ground was crushed by the weight of the digger, which caused many of the birds to leave.”

The search for alternatives after the last clearing work five years ago led to the use of horses but funding problems at the department meant the work could not start at the ideal time of August and early September, when the river is at its lowest level.

“We started in mid-September, when funding was approved, but had to end early because the early rains in October meant the river was too high,” said Mr Pellerin. “The last days of work were with us leading the horses across with water up to our shoulders.”

Before the work started, the three horses, all of the Comtois dray horse breed, had to learn how to walk through water to the islands.

Cables were attached to two horses and these were then dragged through the vegetation or attached to root stumps to do the uprooting. Each horse has a pulling power of two tonnes, which was multiplied by the use of pulleys. “It was hard manual work for me and my worker, because we had to carry all the equipment from the parking space, get it ready and then fetch the horses,” said Mr Pellerin.

“The horses usually worked in one spot for an hour or so before being unhitched so we could move somewhere else. They also had a lunch break from noon to 14.00 like us.”

A local farmer provided a pasture and shelter for the horses so they did not have to be transported by road each day, and a team from a company getting people back into work later cut up the stumps and shredded the removed vegetation.

“Although we had to end early, we and the conservation people were happy with what was achieved,” said Mr Pellerin. “We were certainly cheaper than having machines and plan to be back next year... earlier this time, in August, as soon as the birds have finished nesting.”

Mr Pellerin set up the company after a knee injury meant he had to give up work as a lorry mechanic.

“One of my first jobs as a mechanic was with a logging company and they used horses to take wood out of hard-to-reach places. It is something that stuck with me and when I found I had to change my job, it is what I decided to do. It took two years to get all the diplomas I needed and to set up the company."

“Now we work all over the place: in the vines, but also for forestry and conservation work like this, and for tourist horse and carriage rides."

“We cannot do everything and sometimes it makes sense to use machines instead of horses, but people are realising that for some jobs it sometimes makes much more sense to use horses rather than machines.”

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